FOBAB, aka, the Festival of Barrel-Aged Beers, is an annual Chicago beer nerd (and those who hang onto them) hot ticket tradition. Tickets go so fast, you either have to have a few phones and computers going at the same time to score some, or you have to know someone. Or, you have to volunteer to work some part of the event and are paid by free entry to one session. Which is what my cheap friends and I do, because really for some hours of schmoozing, helping, and walking around (and pizza), it’s a pretty easy score.
This was my first year working and/or attending. My club has done it before and raved about it, so with my back… back… I decided I could handle it and signed up. When you apply, they need to know if you’re BASSET certified and if you aren’t, you take a test. If you don’t want to pour beers, you can skip that part and just sign up for whatever interests you (merch, welcome, ticket taking, ID checking, gopher, heavy lifter, etc). Pouring, they say, is always the best gig. You get to drink while you do it (“discreetly because we’re ” WINK WINK “not allowed”), you get a feel for how the rooms are set up and flow, and there is some choice people watching. But, there’s also a lot of standing, no break, and no time to chill once the crush begins. My back isn’t completely…back… so I opted to work registration. Turns out, that’s mostly standing around until it’s time to hand out glasses and guidebooks. Once those are gone, I was sent to coat check to help some Chicago cops raise funds. After of one of their 13 years old daughters went on to me about Hozier for a solid 10 minutes, I excused myself to “check on a friend in a room who needs some help”…and I never went back. I’m sure they were just fine without me.
But let me back up a bit. The overall flow of events is this: The organizers send out a Facebook request for volunteers. You pick which session you want to work and which session you want to drink, as well as which job you want to do. Then you attend an “orientation” which truly is nothing but free pizza and beer from Revolution while the organizers kind of tell you where to be and when, sort of tell you what to wear, and hint at timelines with a vague whiff of organization. It was about nine minutes of information (wherein mine wasn’t covered in print or via the mic). Things seemed shaky from the get. They didn’t improve. A week or two later, you show up to work, ask someone where to go, get a wristband and t-shirt, then wait to be put into action.
One of us worked Friday night so she could attend the Saturday night session with the other three of us who worked Saturday day sessions. Those of us who showed up to work checked in and then waited for a while. Some were already running around doing important jobs, some were standing around waiting. I was one of those. Eventually, I was placed behind a table with dozens of boxes full of dozens of tiny mugs that had guide books placed in them, to be handed to incoming boozers like batons in a relay. Some of us were plucked from that job and sent outside to check IDs and wristband the oncoming storm. Fortunately, I dodged that job twice. Chicago was hovering comfortably between 32-33 degrees with rain-snow-slush-snow-rain-snow, so when asked, I put on my biggest eyes and slightest grin and looked around. It worked, I wasn’t called.
After the books were handed out, about half an hour before last call, I made my way to coat check to help hand coats back. It was an unorganized, inefficient system with too many cooks and no kitchen (cops were in charge, did I mention that?). The Hozier conversation happened and right as I was on my last nod to, “I WANNA MARRY HIM SO BAD”, people began to funnel out. Slurs of lost tickets and jacket descriptions (“It’s black and puffy”) began to come at us. Bodies flew around the racks in an attempt to help. I just stood there, there was no system and no direction. I offered my tested method, thanks to many years of working coat check at a few restaurants, but they weren’t interested. So I went back to standing there, and dodged bodies.
Soon, I noticed an absolutely wasted man lean on his female companion who wisely set him on the ground then sat down next to him so he could lean on her. He was smiling, but he was seconds from puke and/or pass out. Shortly after him came a young man in his 20s, eyes slitted and knees giving out then popping back into position repeatedly. He leaned and sidestepped until he found station on a friend’s shoulder. Behind him came a man who looked identical to him in stature and condition, plus 30 years. I stood there, watching them barely stand there, swaying, pointing aimlessly, desperate to gain purchase on the arms of their coats and miss over again. Suddenly, I got very sad and very anxious. My heart began to race and I started to plan the quickest way out of my corner.
I made up the slight lie about my friend in the other room, excused myself, and went up to the volunteer room where I grabbed my phone and send Dylan a text. I told him what I’d seen and that for some inexplicable reason, it shook me. I could only assume it was because introvert me was about to barrel (ha ha) headlong into the exact same crowd, fresh and ready to get absolutely hammered. I can’t handle vomit. Out of control drunks make me exceedingly nervous. What had I signed up for? How many more were down there, waiting? So I stayed in the volunteer room until more helpers from my session began to show up. I took that as a good sign and went to meet my friend, who really did exist, at her pouring station. She handed me a few beers, we got caught up, and then it was time to clean. I helped her break down, then we went back upstairs to change into our street clothes to ready ourselves for the drinkin’.
They kept us upstairs for an hour or so with no information, which created all kinds of confusion and chaos. Why wouldn’t they let us downstairs? Would we be able to get in to get drinks before the public, as promised last year? Would our stuff be ok in the volunteer room, now that the night crew showed up and the whole volunteer population has doubled? Eventually, with some false starts and bad information, we were led downstairs and into the main room. We headed straight for the Goose Island BCBS booths where all four of us got different things. Mine was the best, as it happens, though I don’t think it can be purchased. Naturally.
From there we wandered around, enjoyed some BarricAle (several breweries follow the same recipe but produce vastly different results due to environmental variables) and lots of coffee stouts, sours, fruit beers… I can’t even tell you everything we had. Click on the link at the very top, that’s a good breakdown of what’s there and there’s a brewery map with every brewery listed. We had some great pourers who pointed us in the directions of kegs that were about to blow, some folks poured full glasses (about 3 oz) and others poured sippers. Some let us chat them up, some were not into that at all. Ultimately, by the time last call came, we were done and happy to go. I can’t imagine hanging on until someone shoves you out the door. By that point, they may as well pour you into a gutter.
My anxiety? Largely unfounded. Or… I got drunk…but I didn’t see anyone nuts until it was time to leave when no cab or Uber was safe. Yes, there were unsavory piles on the sidewalk here and there, but I didn’t witness it in action. Few were leaning against walls in misery nor were there many bodies laid out on the ground. Maybe like, two. Kegs blew, last call heralded, we grabbed our stuff and caught a cab down the block towards pizza and good old reliable, non-barreled Surly Coffee Bender.
While working I found myself thinking I probably wouldn’t do it again. It was disorganized for the volunteers and as far as fun goes, pouring really is the best way to do it (but not in the sour or cider room, it was a thousand degrees in there). Registration is ok but overstaffed and the risk of going outside to work in bad weather isn’t worth it, so next year if I do it, I will pour. PS – that BASSET cert is to cover FOBAB’s butt. No one asked to see the results. But by the time it was over, I was already thinking of which job to do next year. Being with my friends was the best part though, this is nothing to do alone, there is way too much to share and talk about. It is about 80% men to 20% women, and it is very white. At one point the DJ played Sweet Caroline and predictably, the room went up into that ridiculous “so good! so good! so good!” chant that occurs with the song these days, and my girls and I stopped in our tracks to cringe. Very, very white.
The draw of FOBAB is simple: some of the best breweries in the area made one-off kegs never to be repeated and most either never bottled or very rare. It truly is a once-a-year experience in many senses. Most that are there, are not there for the 13.5% beers only, they really are there to try incredibly interesting and unique, downright exciting, beers. It’s not a bar in the traditional sorrow-drinking way. Thankfully.
It takes an entire year to plan and I don’t envy the team one bit. I thought about offering to help, but it seems rather closed and frankly, they already have people in positions to do the jobs I think they need the most help with (and no one wants to hear that). So instead, I volunteer, I spend my seven hours trying to help however I can, and in exchange I get to drink some amazing, worth more than the $65 entry fee, barrel aged beers.